We have two brilliant new interns who are furiously working through our backlog of interviews, transcribing, fact checking, looking up historical context. As we get up to date, we will provide deeper backgrounders, and, of course, you’ll get to meet them though their bylines and bios. This interview was transcribed by Kayley Ingalls.
Kayley received her BA in International Studies in 2012 from the University of Chicago. Though her coursework includes African Politics, the Modern Middle East, and the Politics of Islam, she wrote her thesis on fairy tales and their use as a vehicle for discussing the Holocaust. A good-natured stickler for grammar, she enjoys taking the odd class on mechanics and usage. Since graduating, she’s tried her hand at working as a Library Assistant and teaching summer school at an exclusive private school in Oakland, California. She dreams of exploring the world and hopes to find her place in it eventually, whether it be in writing, editing, law, or something she has yet to dream up.
When I arrived in the first country for the project, Guatemala, I stayed in the home of a former student activist, congressman and architect, now retired. Cesar’s grandson Marco Antonio picked me up at the airport, and, over Johnnie Walked Red, the three of us spent the night talking about the historic 1954 CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. Marco took me out to the countryside, where he is a teacher and we hung out with one of his friends. This is my conversation with his educator friend, Fabio an extroverted young man in his twenties.
(Guatemalan president overthrown by the United States in 1954.)
What do I know? He was overthrown by the American CIA. He was labeled a communist. Because he wanted to make some reforms.
BG: Was there truth to that? Was he a communist?
No, he wasn’t. The Americans were very nervous about the Soviet Union and the ideas of Marx. They were trying to use communism as an excuse to keep control of many countries in Latin America. That’s what I think.
BG: You can say both were real, there was genuine hysteria, paranoia, fear of the Soviet Union, communist China, Stalin, Mao, Eastern Europe.
I think American society was entitled to be paranoid to a certain degree, but in Latin America that was used as an excuse, again, to be in control of the region. I don’t know if you remember McCarthy?
He was talking about the domino effect, if one country fell down, then the next one, and so on.
Yes. But I don’t think Árbenz was a communist, or Allende in Chile.
(Salvador Allende, the first Marxist to be elected president in free elections in Latin America. Elected 1970, overthrown in a 1973 CIA-supported coup.)
BG: What do you think is the line between being a communist and having some communists in your political coalition or legislature, or pushing for long overdue reforms? The Spanish oligarchy controlling the economy for decades or centuries…
Historically, what we have in Guatemala is a situation in which a minority controls the majority. The wealthy class controls the working class. That is the situation in this country, but every time the working class wants to see changes in society, they always label us. Drug gangs, terrorists.
BG: It’s a convenient way for…
…to get rid of certain people.
BG: Even Obama is called a socialist. Compared to who?
No way! I don’t think he’s even close.
BG: But these words are used to paralyze public discourse. Instead of debating how we affect healthcare reform, well, he’s socialist.
Two things, if the working class is in charge of making changes, the first thing that they probably will change is healthcare for everybody and education free for everybody. And that’s Marxism.
The working class being in control of the–
BG: Being in control, that part. But free education and healthcare? Is that socialism?
That’s a little bit. More Marxism than… But Sweden has both things. Free healthcare and free education. And they are capitalist.
BG: That’s right. A lot of Americans think that ensuring good health care for people and good education is a priority. A lot of Americans think that no, that’s socialism. You’re taking my money, my taxes. I want to lower my taxes, not raise them. Take my money so that some other kid can get good education or healthcare? That’s socialism. This is a significant political view in the United States.
I think that this is like a, how do you say, Obama… I used to have friends from Austria talking about Obama, good things about him. One of his attributes is basically that he is a well articulated person. He can explain things carefully and clearly. But he fails many times because he cannot explain the important things to the American community.
BG: I think that’s true.
People don’t want to be labeled as whatever, communist for instance. So they have to clarify. This is what I am offering, it has nothing to do with being a socialist. He has failed to distance himself from labels, philosophies, or ideologies, I don’t know.
BG: If I can ask, how old are you?
I don’t answer that.
BG: (Laughter.) Okay, you don’t have to answer that. As you were growing up, learning about what happened in 1954, and then seeing the civil war or reading about it, how did you feel about the United States as you heard those things?
I think that it’s a process because it takes time to… As you have more details and more details, you start putting everything together. All the pieces. It fits in time. But I think the American goal was really bad, you know? If you were in school here, you probably would understand what I’m talking about. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the elections and he was actually dealing with the Iranians. They were using Iranians to pass weapons to the Contras.
And also they paid the Iranians to keep the American hostages a little bit longer. Yeah, check that.
BG: I’ve been reading about that lately.
Bill Moyers discusses that in one of his documentaries.
BG: They paid or made certain promises.
No, they were payments.
BG: I have heard that. I love Bill Moyers.
So the Americans came. I think that the agreement… He asked for a favor, if they could maintain the hostages a little bit longer, until after –
BG: The Iranians hated Carter because of the Shah.
(The Carter administration seemed to be complicit with the Shah, who came to the United States for medical treatment after being overthrown in 1979. Carter toasted him on television.)
They wanted to portray Ronald Reagan as a powerful guy, that he is not negotiating with terrorists.
BG: He did negotiate with terrorists, more than once.
Yeah, he did! But they were saying, no, he’s not negotiating with terrorists.
BG: So during the civil war, were you aware that the United States government, particularly during the Reagan administration, was supporting Guatemala’s military dictatorship? What was your attitude about that?
We didn’t know that until we were much older Because that’s part of our history and at that time we weren’t sure. Instead of saying, “You guys have a threat of communism in the area. We are going to help you to eradicate that problem.”
BG: That was the justification.
Yeah, but the money was used to maintain the status quo, to maintain the rich families in power, and keep the military strong.
BG: Did you know any people who were kidnapped, or tortured, or killed?
Just one. He was an old guy. He was kidnapped and killed. Apparently he was associated with a Catholic group.
They say that sometimes the Catholics were indoctrinating.
BG: (It’s estimated that) US-backed military dictators in your country, over time, killed 200,000 people.
Now, they (former political leaders) are using that as justification. Yes, people were brutalized and really badly tortured in Latin America, But you know what? We didn’t do it. It was our military, when it was in Guatemala, Chile, or Argentina. It was the military. We were not involved in that. We weren’t physically there.
BG: The political leaders are saying that it was the military?
Yes. The Americans weren’t involved. You were not doing it. It was the Guatemalans in control of the wrong paramilitary groups, of which there were many. Or, in Latin America as well, we weren’t there. It’s like saying that Hitler is innocent because he wasn’t in Treblinka or Auschwitz. He wasn’t there physically, yeah, but he was the mastermind. The point that I am trying to make is that Ronald Reagan, he was the mastermind behind that machinery.
BG: What do you think was going through Reagan’s mind when he was supporting these brutal dictators?
I think he was really scared during the missile crisis in Cuba. Americans were very scared. We have nuclear weapons, they are no longer in Russia, they are in Cuba. And this is how many miles out of the United States?
BG: 90 miles from Miami.
Suddenly, they can nuke us. And that’s the thing that really scares me. And after Vietnam? Wow.
BG: Yeah, we can lose.
There was a certain degree of paranoia among the military. Among the politicians in the United States. It probably was related to the right wing. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.
BG: What’s happening now in Guatemalan politics?
I am totally disconnected from Guatemalan politics. I read the New York Times, La Stampa Italiana. I only read news from other countries.
I was trying to be in tune with the Guatemalan congressmen who were opposed (to legislation supporting privatization of seeds for) Monsanto.
BG: I heard that today, yeah.
And they decided to go in favor of Monsanto. Something that was really disappointing. In part because they don’t even know what the hell is going on. Because they don’t have the education. They don’t understand our genetics in a way. It’s frustrating. But I am totally disconnected from American politics, too. I don’t understand anymore what’s going on and I have no interest.